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Shiver me timbers: Forestry executives are jittery over NDP's plans Add to ...

"The NDP has advocated opening up the Softwood Lumber Agreement ... the NDP have talked of blowing up the tenure system in B.C. ..." -Statement by forest-industry executive this week intended to set the record straight

Bohemian writer Richard Farina completed the novel Been Down So Long It Looks like Up to Me shortly before his tragic death in a motorcycle accident more than 40 years ago. The title fits well on a statement issued this week by three top forest-industry executives who are trying to find their way through one of the worst economic downturns since the 1920s.

Statistics from Business Indicators, a publication of BC Stats, show how rough it has been in the woods. Employment in the B.C. forest industry in March was 43 per cent lower than March, 2007. Lumber production in February was less than half of February, 2007. Shipments of market pulp, newsprint and other paper fell to 427,000 tonnes in February, from 611,000 tonnes two years earlier.

But it could always be worse, the forest-company executives indicated as they surveyed current conditions. Canfor president Jim Shepard, Interfor president Duncan Davies and West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. president Hank Ketcham say the industry is in trouble, largely as a result of the collapse of the U.S. housing market. "That collapse is not something the government can fix," they stated before going on to praise Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell as "a champion" for the industry. "Our entire industry and those who are employed within it have benefited from the leadership of Gordon Campbell and his team," they stated.

Things would really turn ugly under NDP policies, the three presidents said. Opening up the softwood-lumber agreement would result in legal wrangling and duties at the border that would further jeopardize the economic stability of B.C. companies, their employees and communities in which they live. Changing the tenure system - which dictates who has the right to cut Crown timber - would jeopardize business investment, they stated.

However, NDP forestry critic Bob Simpson said yesterday the business executives misrepresented NDP policies. Contrary to the news release, New Democrats in B.C. would not rip up the softwood-lumber agreement. "We have never stated we would rip up the [softwood-lumber]deal or abrogate the deal as they are claiming," Mr. Simpson said. "As much as we think it is a bad deal and we did not have to sign it, we're stuck with it."

Mr. Simpson acknowledged that federal NDP Leader Jack Layton has said he would tear up the deal. "We don't stand with the federal party when they say it," Mr. Simpson said.

The forestry executives are correct in saying the NDP would change the land tenure system for the publicly owned forests, he also said. But they misconstrue what the NDP are proposing. The NDP anticipate tenure reform would stimulate investment in the B.C. industry, mostly by opening up a system now controlled by companies such as those headed by the three presidents.

Liberal government policies have enabled the largest forest manufacturers in each region of the province to hold near-monopolistic control over the log supply, he said. The NDP would aim to have 50 to 60 per cent of the log supply available to others.

"We need to find ways to give [the large companies]certainty of log supply but we also have to make sure other people can access the kind of logs that they need for new and emerging businesses," he said, referring to small operators and companies working on substitutes for fossil fuels.

Changes in government policy under the Liberal government channelled the log supply to larger companies, enabling the B.C. industry to ride the U.S. housing bubble. But the policies exaggerated the effect of the current meltdown, he said. "When the bubble burst, we had less diversity, less capacity to absorb the shock, because independents and value-added manufacturers had all but disappeared."

Mr. Simpson was not surprised that the corporate executives attacked the NDP during the election campaign. But, he said, he was "disappointed" they hadn't spoken with New Democrats to find out the party's policies before launching partisan attacks that echoed the Liberal Party campaign.

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